photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă
“I believe that I’m Romanian, Jewish, French and because I’ve travelled everywhere, I’m also a bit universal. Americans call people like myself Mid-Atlantic people, as if we were born in the middle of the ocean.”
Born in Bucharest in 1958, Radu Mihăileanu left Romania for good when he was only 22 years old. He was leaving Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorial regime and starting a new life in Paris, where he was to become an important film director.
He welcomed us in his apartment from a bourgeois and quiet neighbourhood of Paris, where he moved less than a year ago. He brought with him his entire collection of books, films, records and family photos, which now create a small museum of personal experiences and artworks that helped him become the man and artist he is today.
On the shelves of his bookcase we see the clapperboards from his famous films – Train de vie, Le Concert, Va, vis et deviens or La source des femmes. Nearby, on the wall, hangs a painting of his father, Ion Mihăileanu, holding the clapperboard with “Le Concert” written on it.
“On my films I had a tradition, that my father held a speech in front of the crew at the beginning of the shoot. The speech would always revolve around the idea that love is the source of life and that without love we can not do anything.”
His father was a famous Romanian journalist and translator. His real name was Mordechai Buchman. He managed to escape a concentration camp during World War 2, changing his name to Ion Mihăileanu. He wrote the screenplay for Lucian Pintilie’s first feature film, Sunday at 6, a love story inspired by the lives of Radu Mihăileanu’s parents.
“I vividly remember that when Pintilie and my father were working in my father’s study, we weren’t allowed to come in.“
“We were young, my brother and I are in one of the scenes from the film. My father and Pintilie were seeing each other oftenly, after that I saw him again in Paris and my film Trahir (Betrayal) was co-produced by Pintilie’s production company in Romania.”
A friend of his father helped young Radu Mihăileanu to settle in Paris: the great French writer André Malraux, back then the French minister of culture.
“Malraux’s novel, La Condition Humaine (The Human Condition), was first translated to romanian by my father. And not in any way, but by hand, with a pencil. The even wilder story is that my father’s manuscript was lost, so he had to translate it again, also with a pencil. Then he wrote a letter to Malraux, who was so impressed that he invited my father to France to meet him.”
Among the books from his family’s library brought to Paris by Radu Mihăileanu, there is also a book signed by Malraux for Ion Mihăileanu.
Although settled in Paris for 40 years, Radu Mihăileanu recounts with great detail memories from Romania, but most of all the context in which he left the country.
He perfectly recalls that it was the 14th of november 1980 when his mother and brother took him to the airport. He was leaving for Israel under the pretext of visiting his grandfather in Tel Aviv, taking advantage of a special political context, in which Ceaușescu, wishing to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, was allowing some jewish people to visit Israel, even receiving money from The United States of America.
He knew that he was leaving the country for good and he was living in fear that his family could be harmed at any time.
“In Romania it was November, it was snowing, in Israel it was 23 degrees. I knew that I had to reach and live with little money in Paris, where it was also winter. So I had to bring more winter clothes, no Israel clothes.
In my suitcase I only had summer clothes. But I was lucky that it was cold in Romania, so I had my coat on. Underneath I had 3 sweaters and 2 shirts and I was praying that they wouldn’t take my clothes off. And they only looked in my suitcase.”
Obviously touched, with his voice trembling, Radu Mihăileanu relives the moment of separation from his family.
“We were at the Otopeni airport, at the checkpoint and there was a door separating us. Every once in a while I would see my mother appear and disappear and I couldn’t understand why. Years later, they told me that she was crying, because she imagined that she’d never see me again.
And my brother would tell her “you can’t cry, he’s leaving for two weeks, officially, if they see you cry, they’ll understand that he’s not coming back.”
After some adventures in Israel, where he received his French visa only through the intervention of a friend of Malraux and his father – Jean Houdart, he reached Paris on the 4th of december 1980, where he had been admitted into IDHEC (L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques), the most prestigious film school in Europe.
“I had a code with my parents, when I would reach Paris, they were supposed to scold me, in order to protect my brother. So, my father scolded me a great deal, saying things like “you’re not my son anymore, why didn’t you tell us?”, everything so that it would seem that they hadn’t known and would not suffer repercussions“
“And I would write many letters that I knew were being read. Most of the time, we would write questions and answers that weren’t actual anymore, because it would take one month for them to get from Paris to Bucharest. If I would write that I am sad, they would respond two months later asking me why I was sad, and I already wasn’t sad anymore.”, he relates now smiling.
“Everything was lagged, but it was amusing. Everything was absurd.”
An absurdity of romanian people that found itself echoed in his films. Today he is one of the most well known film directors in France in the last 30 years and is part of a work group that will change that status of the César Awards.
Before he got to where he is today, he lived the life of an immigrant.
Once in Paris, some friends of his father’s found a cellar for him, where he was permitted to live, in return for cleaning the building, as a janitor. There he cleaned the steps and delivered mail.
“It was a small room, a bathroom. I turned it into a bedroom that had become the exact dimensions of the bed. There I had the salon, the kitchen, and the toilet was outside, in the yard.
But we were students and almost all of us were poor. I took girls there, we had parties. We had 2 square meters and we would party, it wasn’t a problem.”
“I would also work odd-jobs, whatever I could get. A photography lab, cleaning the staircase, like any other student. It’s normal here.“
He ended up making films “out of accident”. Initially, in Romania, being fascinated by the dancer Miriam Răducanu, he wanted to become a dancer himself.
“But I realized that it was tough, physically I had to work a lot, and I was lazy. I said that if a dancer was out of the question, then an actor should be easier. But my father said that I couldn’t memorize the poems in school, that my memory wasn’t good.”
He had to get into college, in order to be able to migrate, so his father pointed him toward a technical profile, even though he didn’t want to have anything to do with maths, physics or chemistry, he wanted to work with words, in the arts. Then, there was the pressure of enrolling in the army. If he didn’t get into college, he would be enlisted for a year and four months, but if he did get into college, he would only be enlisted for 9 months.
“If I got into the long period of enrollment, it was possible that I would be sent to the Danube-Black Sea canal, and people were dying over there.”
“So I searched the list for the college with the lowest admission grade and I found Hydrotechnical. So I was admitted into Hydrotechnical and I served the short army term.
In the army there were bedrooms with 50 bunks, where everyone was crying that their girlfriends were leaving them, and I started making them laugh. I was acting like a clown and there were some playing the guitar. So I got the impression that I could still be an actor.”
In the army he had to prepare an artistic moment for the patriotic contest The Singing of Romania.
“I didn’t know any patriotic poems, I didn’t know anything patriotic. So I made a pantomime show where I ridiculed Ceaușescu, I would walk into walls and the colleagues in the audience were laughing hard. The Secret Police man noticed me and then I realized that I had done something stupid, I thought that I was done.“
“The colonel was a great guy, he called me into his office and gave me a prize for interpretation, but told me : never do this again, ever! The Secret Police man has it in for you. To forgive you, you prepare the regiment’s team to move forward in The Singing of Romania.
I told him that I wasn’t doing anything political, but asked him to allow me to put on a show for ourselves, to cheer up the colleagues, who were very sad.
That’s how I started writing shows for the regiment, to keep us in good spirits. And the colonel was so pleased that he allowed us to put on a show at the girl’s high school in Turnu Măgurele. That sounds like a Milos Forman film.”
“There was our unit, in front of us we had the all-girl high school and the cemetery next to it. So, many times, we had love stories happening in the cemetery.“
When he came back from the army he wanted to withdraw from college, but the dean didn’t let him. He made him stay for another year and prepare the college’s team for The Singing of Romania. That’s how he made an illegal theater crew, made of Hydrotechnical students and former army colleagues.
They would go to universities’ halls and put on spontaneous shows. Their shows were always about a king and queen from 15th century England, but they were actually symbols for Elena and Nicolae Ceaușescu. The Secret Police started questioning him and that’s when his father started preparing his departure from the country. He wanted to study theater directing, but in France there was only film school available.
“At film school in Paris I started taking photographs, watching 3 films per day, to catch up with my other colleagues. I had only seen Russian or Czech films, other than that, I didn’t know anything.”
“That’s how I fell in love with cinema and the gros-plan, which we don’t have in the theater.“
In 2018 he directed his first opera show, Carmen, at the invitation of the Paris Opera. Ion Caramitru invited him, as well, to direct a show at the National Theater in Bucharest, but he says that he hasn’t found a play that suits him yet and hasn’t got the time to write a play himself.
“I am stuck with the theater virus, the dream is still there, to come back one day and do theater. I wish I could write a play and bring my madness into the theater. But I need time to write.”
His connection to writing started from his teens and still eats away at him.
“I used to write stupid poems. Ion Caraion, a good friend of my father’s, was a guest at our house a lot. My film Trahir is inspired a great deal from his life. My mother covered him when he got out of prison, because he wasn’t allowed to write. Someone else would sign his books as authors and Caraion would get paid.
My father told him: look, my son writes poems, if you want to look at them. And Caraion said (he laughs), I will never forget: They are very bad, but don’t stop.”
He meant that I may never be a great poet, but he saw that I liked writing and that if I wanted to do it, I should learn to write by writing. And I would write a lot, every day. It was great advice. I still write poetry, mostly for myself, but I also wrote for theater, we were crazy about the theater back then.
My father was friend with all the great theater directors. I would see these people at our house, Ciulei, Pintilie. I’ll never forget Ciulei’s The Tempest, with Rebengiuc, it’s a masterpiece, I’ve never seen such a powerful Shakespeare play. Through Shakespeare’s lines, we read Ceaușescu’s dictatorial regime.”
A regime that left its mark on his life forever. Politics, dictatorship and the history of humanity have become essential components in all of his films, selected and awarded at the most important film festivals: Cannes, Berlin or Venice.
Radu Mihăileanu gives his characters dignity back, after a struggle for survival he manages to give them the feeling about which his father would speak at the start of his shoots – love.
“When you’re living in a dictatorship, the virus is forever. Yes, you free yourself, you go to cafe’s you read the papers, you’re in a democracy, but the virus is there, obsessive”
“What is beautiful in the arts is that one part of us is thinking, is aware, and one part is unconscious, it enters everything we create, without us realizing it.
And I love telling political stories through a human perspective, a natural one. My idols are Chaplin, Costa-Gavras, political filmmakers going through simple, normal things. That’s where you can feel the true consequence. And Pintilie’s The Reconstruction, those days, hit us terribly.”
In his turn, he has influenced directors that made history for Romania, in the last 25 years. A first assistant director at Train de Vie was Cristian Mungiu.
Mungiu was very thorough, he didn’t speak much. At the end of the shoot he showed me that he had made a short film, then he was in Cannes with another short film. And, of course, after that he won the Palme d’Or. Cristi was very shy, quiet. He worked very well, but he didn’t talk much.
Mungiu wasn’t the only future successful director who came in contact with Mihăileanu’s art.
“When we were shooting Train de Vie in Vaslui, we were staying at the most important hotel in the city, owned by a very rich man, Adrian Porumboiu, who came to see me at dinner and said that he had a son who is 18 and wants to be a filmmaker, and if he could come the next day on set.
The anecdote is fabulous. He came and he stood, poor guy, 100 meters behind the camera, very far, he was very shy. And I said to my french assistant “He’ll never make cinema. He’s standing too far.”
When we saw each other, after he won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, I told Corneliu Porumboiu that I was happy that I was wrong.”
Mihăileanu is good friends with Corneliu Porumboiu, but mostly with Cristian Mungiu, with whom he is working on European cultural policy.
He is also still friends with his army colleagues and the ones from Hydrotechnical, who he sees every time he comes to Romania. He came to his home country to show his two sons their family roots.
Family and friends take a special place in one of his apartment’s rooms. Photos of his grandparents, parents, cousins, as well as ones of his friends, make a family and social tree, essential in the artist’s life.
“I’m a romanian. My films are absurde, they’re dark comedies. This is specific to Romanians, not the French. And a little jewish, with a more bright humour.
I’m french because I’ve been a little civilized and maybe too much. I prefer to remain, though, a little wild, barbaric, such as Le Concert.
I am the meeting point of these identities.”
“I can’t say that I’m a romanian like you, because I don’t live there anymore and I don’t feel the same shakes and the same joys. But I’m a romanian because that’s what’s flowing through my veins“
As a Frenchman, he has adopted the bohemian lifestyle and is enjoying going to cafe’s and meeting his friends. 90% of the time he rides his bicycle on the streets of Paris, sometimes he uses the subway and once a week, on Sundays, he takes the car. He does this when he goes to play tennis with his sons, somewhere on the outskirts of the city, because he can’t take the tennis bag on the bicycle.
He had a passion for the white sport ever since a child, when he played tennis at the Steaua Club. There he met Ilie Năstase, already a superstar in the world of tennis, who everyone idolized.
“We wanted him to play tennis with us, when he came to the club, but he wanted to play football, to have fun. And we would indulge him.”
Now, at the entrance of his apartment in Paris, hangs one of Ilie Năstase’s tennis rackets.
In football he gave up rooting for Romania after Hagi’s generation and has recently suffered when France was taken out from EURO 2020. At the EURO matches, his friends come over, they cook food from the countries playing, they drink wine and have a good time.
Aside from the moments he enjoys being alone, writing, reading, watching films, Radu Mihăileanu enjoys interacting with people.
“On my birthday, in isolation, on the 23rd of april, we were 200 people on zoom, each had a piece of cake, a candle, some champagne, wine, we played music, we danced. I recorded it, to keep the memory.”
He says that he’s an ecologist and was under the impression that the pandemic would provoke profound change in people.
“I hoped that the pandemic would make us more ecological, that we would reestablish certain life values, but when everything was open again, people were queueing at Zara. I was completely let down.”
“From an ecological point of view, the clock keeps ticking. As we’re delaying, it becomes irreversible. Planet Earth will still be here, it’s not going anywhere. Mankind will disappear, not the planet.”
He was also profoundly saddened by the antisemitic messages recieved by his friend, Maia Morgenstern and shows concern regarding extreme right political movements coming back.
“We took giant leaps in the last 80 years, in space, technology, medicine, but we cannot evolve in the field of human mentalities, the fascism and hatred that keep coming back.”
Nevertheless, despite a terrible history that he felt personally, he breathes love for life and humanity.
“- Do you believe that human nature is beautiful or ugly?
– It’s beautiful. If it wasn’t I’d kill myself. I love Cioran, but I remain positive. Life and everything surrounding us is a miracle. Birth is a miracle. We ask ourselves why we are here and what our purpose is, when there are so many in line, waiting to be born, asking when their time will come.
We are alive, surrounded by wonderful things. I go downstairs, I get the newspaper, I sit at the cafe and I look at people. It’s a miracle. You took the plane from Romania, you’re in Paris and we’re talking. A Miracle.
We go to the restaurant and we are amazed about how they prepared our food. There are 1000 miracles. But we forget them, that’s the problem.
We forget that we’re living constant miracles.”
***This story is part of the “France Week” series, a Cultura la Dubă project supported by BNP Paribas.